News & Features
Lights, camera, scholarships
Six years after Cinespace Chicago Film Studios was founded in an abandoned steel plant on the Southwest Side of Chicago, the company has become the largest soundstage operation outside of Hollywood.
The studios have served as the home base for dozens of films and TV shows, generated an estimated $3 billion in film-related spending and been responsible for the creation of more than 7,500 jobs in the Chicago area.
Cinespace Chicago Film Studios President and Northeastern Illinois University alumnus Alex Pissios (B.A. ’94 English) has presided over the meteoric rise of the company, but he doesn’t take all of the credit. Pissios saves much of that for his beloved late uncle.
It was Nick Mirkopoulos who in 2007 encouraged his nephew, then a fledgling real estate developer who was all but ruined by the economic crash, to think about expanding his Toronto-based film business to Chicago. Four years later, Alex took the helm as his brother and fellow Northeastern alumnus, Nick Pissios (B.S. ’02 Management), served as the director of operations.
“We started with thinking about 100,000 square feet, and now here we are with a million and a half square feet and close to 70 acres,” Alex said.
The first high-profile show to film at Cinespace was the Chicago-based drama “Boss,” starring Kelsey Grammer. Producers rented the entire 30,000-square-foot fifth floor of Cinespace’s center building.
From there, the growth has been exponential, with Cinespace serving as home base for TV series by super-producer Dick Wolf such as “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago Fire.” Cinespace has also been the soundstage of choice for movies such as “Divergent” and two of the films in the “Transformers” franchise.
“Every day is different. Every day is a challenge,” Nick Pissios said. “Film industry tenants are very demanding, but it’s a marathon. You keep them happy; they keep coming and making shows.”
Each TV and movie production requires skilled workers for lights, cameras, casting and catering, among other needs, all jobs filled by Chicago-area residents. The film industry was responsible for almost $500 million in spending in Illinois in 2016, according to the Illinois Film Office, representing a 51 percent increase over the year before. During that period of growth, Cinespace has been one of the state’s economic leaders in the industry, Film Office Director Christine Dudley said.
“The film industry is as important as the tech industry in terms of an industry that has growth potential, innovation, job creation and graduate retention,” she said. “Most of these jobs are blue-collar jobs. They’re terrific, good-paying jobs.”
Job creation and preparedness is a recurring theme for the Pissios brothers.
“You hear about what’s going on in certain areas of Chicago, the violence, but I’m a firm believer that if you give an opportunity, a job is what changes the next generation,” Alex said. “When you walk around and see all these people working, that’s really the best feeling.”
While it might be easy to get lost in the bright lights, big budgets and Hollywood names, the Pissios brothers prefer to measure their success by the lives they touch. It’s a lesson in priorities they learned from their uncle, who died in 2013.
“Nick really taught us about ethics and being a good person and helping people,” Alex said.
In return for those valuable lessons, the Pissios family has honored Mirkopoulos with the creation of the CineCares Foundation, which provides outreach to people in underserved communities who need help paying to go to college.
More recently, the brothers endowed a new scholarship through the NEIU Foundation. The Nick Mirkopoulos Scholarship is intended for African-American mothers, and it’s a point of pride for the brothers to give others the opportunity for the kind of success they achieved after earning their degrees from Northeastern.
“A lot of times you hear about somebody who graduated from Northwestern or Harvard and they’re doing these big developments and they’re so successful,” Alex said. “Well, a couple Northeastern kids generated $3 billion for the state and 7,500 jobs. That’s important to me. It makes us proud, and we’re proud that we went to Northeastern.”
Both brothers emphasized the value of graduating from the most diverse university in the Midwest.
“The best part of Northeastern is that it is a melting pot,” Nick said. “Going to school, there were all kinds of different people, all kinds of different races. That has come to help me succeed here and us as a family. In this business, you’re dealing with so many different people, so many different ethnicities, so many different cultures. Northeastern was that, and we’re living it every day.”
When Cinespace expanded into Chicago, the family chose an abandoned steel plant in the economically depressed neighborhood of North Lawndale. “It’s an area that really needed an injection of growth,” Alex said.
Mission accomplished on that front, according to Alderman Jason Ervin, whose ward includes the Cinespace property. “They’ve put that industrial space back to great use,” Ervin said. “It has generated additional opportunities for residents and the neighborhood.”
That’s exactly what Mirkopoulos would have wanted to hear.
“We’re most proud of the way we’ve embraced the community like a family,” Alex said. “Those were marching orders from my Uncle Nick. He said you can’t come into a neighborhood and start expanding without bringing in the neighbors and bringing in the families, and that’s what we’ve done.”
As the company continues to grow, the Pissios brothers continue to think big. Cinespace has rented space to Lagunitas Brewing Company, which gave 400,000 tours in 2016. DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts and independent production incubator Stage 18 also are tenants.
Dudley likens the development in North Lawndale to the effect Oprah Winfrey had decades ago on another Chicago neighborhood when she moved her studio into the West Loop.
“The growth that I’ve seen in the last two years—particularly in their commitment to education and the opportunity that they have with DePaul University and watching the development of the incubator, Stage 18—that is tremendous,” Dudley said.
What’s next? There are plans to fence off part of the Cinespace property to create a back lot that turns the streets into miniature versions of Chinatown, New York City and London.
Yet even that ambitious plan is not enough for the Pissios brothers, who admit they rarely take time to reflect on their success.
“We’re at year five but this is where we thought we’d be at year 10, so we’re about five years ahead of schedule,” Alex said. “I’m still looking forward to what’s the next thing we’re going to do.”